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Wilmington minority voting bloc part of SD 8; experts weigh opportunity or disenfranchisement


As New Hanover County residents head to the polls this election season, a small percentage of them will be choosing a different state senator.  WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn takes a closer look at how the latest round of redistricting could affect one small Wilmington neighborhood that now has Brunswick, Bladen and Pender County residents as fellow constituents. 

Most of New Hanover County is known as Senate District 9 – currently represented by Republican Senator Thom Goolsby.   But one very small section of the County was carved out as part of the last redistricting process and put into Senate District 8. 

Aaron King, a political science lecturer at UNCW says there was a solid legal reason for removing a part of the County from the 9th District. 

“Basically after the 2010 Census, the population of New Hanover County had grown in such a way that it was outside the boundaries of how large a district for the state senate could be.” 

The Wilmington neighborhood extracted from District 9 is hard to describe without using a map.  It’s south of Market Street, west of 17th Street and a patch work of blocks excluding the affluent portion of the historic district downtown. 

80% of its registered voters are African-American and 73% are Democrats.  Senate District 8, this group’s new district, is largely white – with an African-American population of just 13%.  Registered voters are split fairly evenly along party lines in what is currently Republican Senator Bill Rabon’s District.  36% are Democrats.  35% are Republicans.  And 29% are unaffiliated. 

Keesha Gaskins serves as Senior Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice -- a non-partisan public policy institute that’s part of New York University.  Gaskins says the Brennan Center is still finishing its study on the recent redistricting, but early analysis shows a predictable trend. 

“It appears that partisans acted in partisan interests.” 

So what are the implications for this largely African-American, Democratic group in Wilmington that now falls under the jurisdiction of Senator Rabon? 

“Is that group able to be adequately represented?  Are they consistently going to be left out of policy decisions and not really have a representative to speak for them because the representative maybe has competing interests that represent a much larger percentage of their constituent base?” 

The other side of that coin, says Gaskins, is that this Wilmington neighborhood could share economic and social interests with its new fellow constituents

“The challenge with redistricting is if districts are drawn in such a way that they’re based solely on partisan breakdowns or something that creates more safe districts or more competitive districts but still don’t necessarily reflect communities of interest in the way people live, then it’s difficult for these same communities to hold elected officials accountable.” 

UNCW’s Aaron King says having a smaller percentage of minorities in both districts versus a larger group in just one might offer more opportunities for representation.  And there’s another potential advantage, says King. 

“The fact that New Hanover County does have now – technically – two people that are supposed to be representing it – I think – from that respect it could be a good thing.”   

Keesha Gaskins of the Brennan Center says district lines have to move at least once a decade to reflect demographic changes and population growth. 

“The question becomes as these lines move, are the resulting districts the most fair, equitable, and reflective of the people in those districts?” 

The American representative democracy is entirely dependent, says Gaskins, on how these districts are made up. 

“And the quality of representation is very much a part of that.  So we encourage every citizen to understand their districts, understand the process, and participate as much as possible.”  

We tried to reach Senator Rabon for comment about his new bloc of constituents.  A representative told us he didn’t have time for an interview just three days before the election, and she had no way to reach him for comment. 

As of Friday, November 2nd, the North Carolina General Assembly’s website still listed Rabon as representing Brunswick, Columbus, and Pender Counties – the old district lines – with no mention of New Hanover County.